Increasing Productivity for Flex Fabricators
Barry Matties and Nolan Johnson of I-Connect007 met with Shane Noel and industry veteran Mike Jennings of ESI to discuss the introduction of their CapStone laser tool, a product aimed at doubling their flex circuit fabricators’ throughput. Mike also shares advice for fabricators who are looking to move into the ever-growing flex market.
Barry Matties: Shane, please start first by telling us a little bit about ESI?
Shane Noel: ESI is one of Oregon's oldest technology companies. We've been around since the 1940s. ESI started off as a test and measurement company for military and electronics. We have been serving the flex market since the late 1990s and developed laser-drilling applications in the flex market. The flex business has become a core business here, although we still do test and measurement, and we're moving into some other laser processing applications as well, like HDI.
Matties: And your role here is the product marketing manager?
Noel: Yes. I work as a product marketing manager in the flex business. I previously managed the applications engineering side of the flex business unit and it was a natural step in my career to move into the product marketing and management of that product. I now work under Patrick Riechel, the lead product manager.
Matties: Well, we recently received a press release announcing your new CapStone product. Why don't you just give a quick overview of what that technology is about?
Noel: The CapStone is building on and expanding upon our capabilities in flex processing. About six years ago we introduced the 5335 system, which is pretty much the gold standard in flex laser processing right now. The CapStone utilizes some of that technology and expands upon that technology to create even greater throughput and advantages in production and high volume manufacturing for our main customer base, which include the top 10 flex manufacturers in the world.
Our aim is to double throughput over our previous product in order to give the customers a better cost of ownership and also to improve upon yield and reliability. So we've also partnered with one of the top laser manufacturers to develop and uniquely market a laser engine that can utilize our technology capabilities in the beam-positioning field and provide that throughput to the work surface, which a lot of older technologies could not provide.
Matties: So in your press release you talked about how it was twice the speed. That's quite an accomplishment right there. Still a competitive price and adding capacity in a smaller footprint, basically.
Noel: That's right. If you double your throughput, you have to invest in less of the large machines on your floor, which has been a continual problem with a lot of our customers. As they build out their factories, they find that they fill up their rooms with laser systems when they get a large order, and then they have to build another factory.
Matties: That was a bottleneck.
Noel: It's definitely a bottleneck because you've got to maintain all the facilities for each and every one of these tools. So as you mentioned, the new system doubles the throughput over the older system that we provided, which was already the industry leader. We're not doing this by doubling the amount of laser heads or anything like this. It all comes from our optical beam delivery technology.
Matties: We were talking earlier about the digital factory, the data part of the factory. How is your equipment plugging into that strategy for people?
Noel: That's an excellent question. Like most companies in the industry, we’re looking for how to implement more automation into our systems as well as diagnostic tools for better health monitoring. For instance, we're getting ideas to put into our software, like easier data introduction to the tool. The current process is to use an offline CAD/CAM system to take the customer data, work it into a format that we can use on a tool. We're working right now with one of our partners in Taiwan to bring in direct data import from what their customers provide them so that they take this step out of the process.
In addition, we’re looking at how best to implement remote communication with our tools, so you can see a snapshot of the health of that tool and then start to better predict when to perform a service intervention.
Matties: That's a great goal. You've been in the industry for many years, so there are a lot of ESI units out there. What about retrofitting or upgrading units in the field? Is that a possibility for someone who may not want to purchase this new one but wants some of the benefits?
Noel: That's a good point. So with the new tool, we have developed certain features from feedback from our customers, including even better protection of the optical path than previously available. On our last generation of systems, those had more service interventions than we, as well as our customers, would like to see. On the new tool, that improved protection is designed in, and during that design, we backported that into the older tool. Customers can purchase this option. You can retrofit your old system, or you can buy that older tool with the new optical path. All the software features, all those automated features, are going to be backportable into the older tools. And then again, in our roadmap, we're looking at improving accuracy and being able to backport that also into our older tools.
Matties: Mike, you've been in this part of the industry for many years.
Mike Jennings: I'm starting year 43 in bare boards.
Matties: Wow! Congratulations. You've seen a lot of changes. What are some of the most notable changes that you've seen in this sector?
Jennings: In the flex sector, it's been the change. If you go back years and years ago, the flex sector was focused on military, aerospace, small production runs, cable replacements, heaters, basic levels of technology. They're now the building blocks of the devices we carry every day. You can't have a cellphone or a tablet without having multiple iterations of flex circuits on many different kinds of materials.
The big thing we're seeing now is the changes in the material itself. As 5G cellular starts to come out, as just data speed on cellphones starts to go up, we're seeing more and more materials that actually existed 15 years ago, such as LCP, but now they're now finding their killer application after so many years of just kind of being out in the wilderness. The big changes are feature size, overall material changes, the use of these higher-end, more advanced materials, and the cost drivers that are making this happen. You'll see that a new material may come out that may have all the electrical properties somebody wants, but unless it's going to be at a cost level that the OEMs are going to be willing to accept, it's going to be a non-starter.
It's a three-legged stool. It's the fabricators, it's the equipment providers, and it's also the material makers. All three legs of that stool have to be cut the same length, or you're not going to sit on it.
Matties: You're keying in on a good point. We're seeing flex showing up in more and more areas and more spaces. What advice would you give a fabricator who's looking at moving into this space and considering this type of equipment?
Jennings: The first thing is you've got to get your fundamentals right. The fundamental basics of bare PCB manufacturing, you have to have those right first. If you're a bare-board maker looking at getting into flex, you've got to be competent right where you are now. You have to have good process control and good process oversight and overview, because you're going to be introducing a whole different set of in-process problems with materials with much worse dimensional stability than you may be used to dealing with, with lamination challenges that you may not be used to dealing with. So get your fundamentals right first.
So many times we see problems that end up being magnified because the fundamentals weren't there to start with: people not being trained; people not being cross-trained; operations or operator changes; equipment changes day-to-day; basic things with your facility; not having high-quality compressed air, not having enough vacuum. By the way, regarding vacuum debris removal and of vacuum compressed air, the more of these flex processes you get into, the more these things are going to present a danger to you if you don't have the good fundamental building blocks already in place.
Matties: Shane, you came from the application side. What experience are you carrying forward that you're going to move into your new role?
Noel: Well, I think in product management, you often find that we're a little bit knowledgeable about everything but not expert about anything, and so customers will come in with questions and they'll have to speak to a team of people to understand. I've been able to help short-circuit that whole process to some extent. I mean, I don't know everything, but do know more than most when it comes to the flexible circuit manufacturing and laser process. A customer will complain, "I got this one void, or I had this one mis-drill, and I think it's your system." I can work through that process and how they drilled that hole and try to understand why and what problems caused that end failure, and just short-circuiting that problem.
Being able to address customer questions or salespeople that come back and say, "A customer had this complaint," and being able to quickly respond to that and hopefully help the customer recover has already been a benefit. Understanding the technical capabilities of the tool so when we get a sales lead that doesn't make sense for flex and might need to be done on a different one of our tools or maybe it's a research project, being able to keep my application team focused on flex and letting these more exotic type of applications go to the right place has been able to streamline our capability to focus on flex in our applications group.
In addition to that, just being able to know how a customer or how a user generally interacts with the tool. We have a lot of features in our tool that are very high level, that your normal, everyday operator won't see, won't even think about using, and you don't necessarily need to focus on improving those if the GUI that the normal operator sees is a problem or has issues. So focusing on what's important is important.
Nolan Johnson: I want to pick up right there with you, Shane, and ask you if you could walk us through some more of the specifics around how CapStone doubles the throughput, with the beam positioner and the optical path and the laser.
Noel: I'll start with our previous product, the 5335. It uses a laser that was developed in the mid- to early-2000s, so it was maybe second or third generation UV laser technology. It's a rock-solid product, and it works very well, but it's very low rep-rate. A lot of the laser manufacturers, what they're doing now is they're producing much higher rep-rate lasers, and they're also producing much more reliable lasers. And so with this new product, we wanted to go out to the market and see what those new lasers can provide to us.
We worked with a major laser manufacturer. We started with their standard product, and we worked with them to fine-tune it to actually work best on our tool. Whereas a standard product might have a wide range of rep rates and it might be optimized at one of them, we have chosen a single rep rate and optimized laser and system performance at that particular rep rate, which gives us the best laser characteristics for flex processing at that rep rate and also improves the lifetime of the laser itself because it's not fluctuating from place to place.
And the driver to do that, again, is so that we can use our optical beam steering technology -- AODs, you may be familiar with -- which we had in our 5335, and now they run at RF frequency, which basically is a non-mechanical way of moving the beam. If you're not hindered by mechanical movement, you can steer a beam at the speed of light, more or less. At the speed of pulses.
And, the laser has characteristics like its pulse shape and its pulse energy to the work surface that allows us to address some of these thinner material sets and new material sets that are coming out. So that's another reason to look at these newer laser technologies.
Jennings: We sent out our first laser drill 22 years ago, and the changes, we're literally on a sixth or seventh generation. And for all these years, the one thing that's always been consistent, if you look at it, it's been a game of leapfrog with beam positioning, laser power, and rep rate. Beam positioning, laser power, and rep rate. If the beam positioners are faster than the lasers can keep up, then a new generation of lasers comes out to surpass the beam positioning technology. So it's been constant innovation around these two areas; it has been a consistent game of leapfrog for well over 20 years now.
Matties: Now, in your release, you note savings up to 30%. How do you calculate that? Where is the savings coming from?
Noel: That's a great point. The savings come from looking at the economic value provided by the system to the customer. As you can imagine, higher performance systems come with higher value to the marketplace. So, although the Capstone system is priced higher than the baseline 5335 system, when you consider the 2x throughput improvement, the decision to migrate to the Capstone product still yields a 30% lower cost per panel for laser via drilling.
Matties: Well, congratulations, you guys. Thank you very much for your time today.
Noel: Yeah, thank you.
Jennings: I appreciate it.